The 1990 “Rônin-gai,” directed by Kuroki Kazuo (Ash-ita), reinforced my opinion that the golden age of rônin films was the 1960s, when Mifune Toshirô and Nakadai Tatsuya were in their prime, starring in unglamorizing films directed by Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), Okamoto Kihachi (Kill!, Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin), Shinoda Masahiro (Samurai Spy), and Kobayashi Masaki (Hara-kiri, Samurai Rebellion) set in the 19th century, in the declining days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) after centuries of peace had rusted Japan’s hereditary warriors caste (the samurai) and its honor code (the tao of the sword).
What “Rônin-gai” added was what looks like a strand from Mizoguchi’s many movies about the hard lot of prostitutes, such as “The Life of Oharu”)… or from slasher movies. Through most of the movie the swordsmanship on display is slicing up prostitutes (“social cleansing” by a group of samurais working for the Tokugawa shogun).
The local rônin (unemployed samurai) mostly drink at a tavern/bordello along a stream, some distance from Edo (now Tokyo) in 1836. At the outset of the movie, a particularly dissolute one named Gennai (Harada Yoshio) has returned to resume a relationship with the most high-priced of the prostitutes, Oshin (Higuchi Kanaka). Another rônin, Gonbei (Ishabashi Renji), longs for her, and a third, “Bull” (Katsu Shintaro), has appointed himself bouncer and protector of the prostitutes, including Oshin. Nearby, dealing in caged birds (and smelling of guano) is another rônin, Doi. I thought the woman who lives with him and nags him must be his wife, but I guess is his sister. She and Oshin set a trap for the murderer, but did not consider that instead of one psychotic there was a whole army. (The viewer knows this early on, so mentioning it is not plot-spoiling.)
Plot spoiler alert
“Bull” sells himself as an amusement to the shogunate samurai, but is unwilling to aid in their “social cleansing” of those he had been protecting (the prostitutes).
Eventually (as in the Kobayashi rônin movies), there is a long battle scene. Gennai is, as usual, weaving from excess drink, but is the first champion on the scene, slaughtering attackers as he staggers about. Gombei takes time to change clothes (immaculate white that is soon bloodstained) before joining the battle. Doi suits up in the armor he was considering selling and charges into the fray on horseback.
End of plot spoiler alert
A lot of blood is spilled, including sadistic murders of unarmed women. The proto-fascist samurais are the villains. Oshin is the closest thing to a hero, though the rônin eventually remember their code of honor as samurai in somewhat comical ways.
The long stretch of setting up the battle lacks the tension of “Harakiri” (and the charisma of Nakadai!). None of the characters is very likable (the women are not unlikable, but are not individuated, other than Oshin having more initiative). For a character-driven movie, more interested characters are necessary. For a plot-driven movie, more action is needed. As it is, Harada’s wild hair is often more interesting than what the characters are doing.
The cinematography of Takawai Hitoshi seems muddy to me. The music of Mastsumura Teizo (who also scored “Tomrrow” for Kuroki) annoys more than it serves the story.
It seems to me that the jidai-geki movie in Japan was in the same parlorous state as the American western by 1990 (but has been revitalized in the new millennium with the masterful “Twilight Samurai” and others.)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray